“We are Stewardesses for NWA
To some it’s work; to us it’s play
Wings tipped with gold and uniforms blue
To our home in the sky we will always be true.” — Song sung at Northwest Airline stewardess training, 1950
Sue Brosnahan was ready to escape dorm curfews, required chapel attendance, and other in loco parentis rules. But what does a young woman do with an English degree from the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minnesota? Classmates were taking the traditional route – becoming teachers, getting married—but not our Sue. Instead, she took to the skies as a stewardess.
Sue sent letters of inquiry, filled out applications, and attended open interviews. Not every smart young woman who applied fit the bill. Only unmarried women between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-eight could apply. Sue squeaked into the appropriate height range of five feet two inches to five feet seven inches, and her weight didn’t come close to one hundred and thirty pounds, so she met two other basic requirements. Ditto her lack of eyeglasses or removable dentures, complexion issues, or crooked teeth – all disqualifiers for stewardesses.
Before she met an interviewer at Northwest Airlines, she submitted the requested two photos of herself – one a full-length view and one close-up– so they could make sure she was attractive enough to don flight wings and a perky cap. When interviewed, Sue apparently displayed the “poise, tact, friendliness, charm, and dependability” they sought, and soon after graduation, she was on her way to stewardess class, a four-week “free” training where she earned no salary. Training taught her and the other newbies about weather maps, trip planning, good posture, and serving drinks, along with some team-building fun. Together they sang parodied songs, including one to the tune of “Bell Bottom Trousers” which begins:
“Now that I’m with Northwest and flying on the line
I have to keep on dieting to keep my figure in line.
My hair’s been cut; my brows are plucked
My lips are fashioned too –
If you can recognize me, that’s more than others do.”
At the end of training, a senior interviewer’s letter informed her that “girls are assigned to work as rapidly as the needs of the service require.” (Yes, the letter says “girls”.) By September, Sue was officially a Northwest stewardess, earning one hundred eighty dollars a month. Her contract stipulated that if she married, she was to give two weeks’ notice and that her employment would be immediately terminated. She was on her way!
When commercial aviation began in the 30’s, airlines employed nurses dressed in whites to assure passenger safety. By the late 60’s, stewardesses were wearing wildly colored mini-skirts and go-go boots. In the postwar era, airlines adopted a military style. Sue proudly wore a navy blue suit cinched at the waist with a wide belt, a crisp white blouse, a navy cap, and high heels. As per the rules, her slender body was encased in a girdle. Passengers, mostly businessmen in suits and ties, stretched out in wide upholstered seats, propping their wing-tip clad feet on foot rests. Sue and her fellow stews didn’t dole out skimpy bags of peanuts or beverages in plastic cups. Instead, they served hot meals on white china. Men puffed on their cigarettes or cigars while guzzling free cocktails delivered by the oh-so-solicitous hostesses of the skies who learned to bat away unwanted attention long before #MeToo.
Sue kept meticulous flight logs to chronicle her travels, from MSP (Minneapolis) to CHI (Chicago), a three hour trip, and DCA (Washington), a six hour flight, with a few jaunts to not-so-luxurious ports of call like Billings, Winnipeg, Duluth, Fargo, and Milwaukee. She managed to pass her six month check rides with only a few glitches. On one, her supervisor advised her that in the future, her navy blue uniform must be spotless (a smudge on her skirt?), and that points of interest, weather, altitude and speed must be announced periodically over the PA system during a flight. If a PA system was unavailable on a smaller aircraft, the stewardesses should each take a section of the cabin and “verbally” brief the passengers. And, don’t forget to offer a second cup of coffee.
Being a stewardess came with a bit of prestige. Her parents must have been tickled to show off newspaper clippings that featured their Sue. Once, she was required to “tickle a beard” of a man rescued from the Saskatchewan wilderness after 28 days. In another photo, she welcomed a newspaper editor aboard as he began a 25,000 mile trip.
Accolades landed in her file as well. Spotlessly cleaning the kitchen got her a “Good girl, Sue!” from the supervisor. She “behaved beautifully” when dealing with an irate passenger. Providing little extras like pillows and seat adjustments and greeting passengers by name earned her some praise as well. Once she gave some extra TLC to a jittery first time flyer named Mrs. Shields, and Mr. Shields wrote a letter to the company president and one to Sue, addressed to “Dear Young Lady”, to sing her praises.
In Minneapolis, Sue shared an apartment with two other stews, each chipping in to pay the rent of one hundred twenty-five dollars a month. What fun! While most other women her age were living at home with parents or with a new spouse, Sue and her pals were free to live on their own. Finding dates was easy; there were planeloads of eligible men. It was tricky balancing her travel schedule with her dating calendar.
By 1952, Sue had eyes for only one guy – Ray Martin. Since he was an intelligence officer in the Air Force, she and Ray must have met on one of her trips to Washington, D.C. Sue chose a wedding ring over her flight wings, and when she and Ray married in August, she was grounded.